The Wikipedia encyclopedia defines Gospel music as music that is written to express either a personal or a communal belief regarding Christian life, as well as to give a Christian alternative to mainstream secular music.
By this definition, gospel music must then have a unique and very special role in a society. In the case of Rwanda, a country with a difficult history, its potential role can be termed as critical.
According to Thierry Rwagatore, founder of African Strategic Impact (ASI), a Christian non denominational organization in the region,
“Transformation and regeneration in a people can be influenced from gospel music that speaks of the grace of God.”
He laments that the church especially in Rwanda and Burundi was unable to effectively play a positive role in standing for principles and values of Jesus Christ during the tumultuous times in their recent history.
“Today, the church has nightmares and lives with guiltiness of past failures. The crisis in Rwanda for example and in Burundi has been cyclic. The church has not always played her positive role effectively in standing for principles and values of Jesus Christ. We need to do that.”
What has the Church been doing?
The last decade has witnessed a number of gospel musicians coming through and they are coming at a time when many a broken Rwandese people need uplifting and to be reminded of the grace of God.
One of the more famous post-conflict recording artists is Apollinaire Habonimana a Burundian song-writer and singer. Habonimana has recorded many songs of praise and worship that have gone on to inspire the transformation of multitudes of people in and out of church.
His albums include Yesu Vyizigiro (1994), Wastahili Sifa (1998), Mpore Mama (2002) and now Regeneration (2007).
Growth in its Style and Production
Also, the more recent gospel musicians are adopting contemporary styles in their music and it has been widely welcomed by the younger generation.
According to Kodo Ngabane, a worship leader at one of the churches in Kigali, a good number of gospel artists have of late been releasing nicely done albums with profound messages.
He says he is impressed by the fact that they have been able to accomplish a lot bearing in mind that many are lacking in professional training and are usually self-taught in vocals and in the playing of instruments.
Ngabane however admits that though it is difficult for a musician to make a living out of their music in Rwanda, he believes that if a gospel singer has the call to minister by way of music, they should go for it by all means.
He believes God does provide the means for such a singer.
Another person who is proud of the development of gospel music in Rwanda is Phanny Wibabara.
Wibabara, an administrator, worship leader and gospel singer says that she is proud of how far gospel musicians have come in terms of song-writing and in the general quality of production of their music.
She attributes this to the growing investment in the country of new and fairly modern production studios.
She names KINA music, Bridge records, Kilulu 9 Productions, Narrow Road productions and Hope Street Studios as some of the production houses that have helped raise the quality of music in Rwanda.
Phanny, who so far has three singles to her name, says that her drive is Jesus. She hopes that this remains so for other gospel singers as theirs is a calling to minister.
She also sings with a group of her friends: Aline Gahongayire, Gaby Kamanzi and Clementine Uwitonze a.k.a. Tonze, together called the Sisters.
According to her, they are more effective in their music ministry when they are together, which she says, is geared towards reaching out to many people with the gospel. Her own songs are strong with the themes of Hope and Belonging to Jesus.
On the industry itself she applauds the fact that people are now more accepting to gospel music and are willing to buy their CDs.
However, she decries the fact that getting airtime on most radio stations is still dependent on the taste of the particular presenter who is on air at any one time.
She says this tendency is retrogressive to the general growth of music in Rwanda.
She names Tri-star home video at UTC, Zion Temple bookshop, Ndoli’s supermarket and Alga shop in Kimironko to be some of the places where one can purchase gospel music.
In conclusion, it is clear that gospel musicians have raised the quality of their art. One can only hope that the fundamental difference between gospel music and secular music remains.